Improving defensively huge UNC emphasis in the last week of practice

By R.L. Bynum

North Carolina’s inability to defend 3-point attempts has been an ongoing issue for a few seasons that hasn’t been solved under first-year coach Hubert Davis.

In starting the season 4–2, the Tar Heels added another layer to the defensive problems with help-side defense breaking down and some opponents enjoying layup lines and numerous easy drives to the basket.

That’s clearly not how Davis has drawn it up in practice. He’s worked on improving his team’s defense during the eight-day break leading to UNC’s home game against No. 24 Michigan (4–2) in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at 9:20 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN).

^ — NCAA tournament game

What’s been Davis’ message to the team about defense since the 72–53 home win over UNC Asheville on Nov. 23?

“I feel like just guarding the ball was one big one and just the will and want-to to be able to get defensive stops,” senior wing Leaky Black said. “Obviously, I feel like we’re all capable of guarding the ball and doing that stuff, not allowing my man to score. But it’s a matter of just getting that mindset. You’re not gonna let your man score and that’s what Coach Davis is trying to put into our heads.”

Black didn’t need that mindset hammered into his head but that’s not the case for most of the Tar Heels’ rotation. As good as Black defends, always guarding the opponent’s best player, a huge element is communication on the defensive end that also has been lacking.

“Once we get that mindset that we’re gonna lock people up, I feel like that’ll just take care of itself and you’ll start seeing how powerful we really are,” Black said.

Davis says that the coaching staff worked a lot in the last week on getting the Tar Heels better at transition defense, which he says has to be great.

“We have to have guys sprinting back,” Davis said. “We have to have guys talking and communicating. One of the things that I’ve said consistently is you sprint back, not with a sense of urgency but with a sense of emergency.”

Once in the half-court, he wants them better at defending inside, guarding the ball and containing drives.

“I feel like we’ve gotten better,” Davis said of the defensive progress during the last week of practice. “I feel like we’ve gotten back to our foundation principles on talking on defense, being in the right position, communicating team defense — all the things we had talked about in preseason. For whatever reason, in Connecticut we really struggled with that.”

The defensive numbers through six games aren’t pretty.

UNC ranks 356th in the country, according to barttorvik.com, in creating turnovers on only 11.6% of their possessions (down from 19.0% and 152nd last season). Only Northern Iowa (10.9) and The Citadel (9.9) are worse.

Davis’ defensive philosophy to allow no layups, dunks or open 3-point attempts hasn’t connected with his team’s performance.

“Don’t put them on the free-throw line, and make them make at least two passes or more so our defense can get set and is in a position where you can guard to actions,” Davis said, explaining what he tells his team. “That’s something that we require of all of our guys because they’re talented enough and able to do it.”

The best evidence that the opponents are getting easy shots is that they’re shooting 51.2% on two-point attempts, which is 228th in the country (compared to 47% and 78th last season).

Davis has emphasized that every player on the court, regardless of size, should be able to guard players of different sizes and guard various actions. It has worked out in games some, but not consistently.

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“They’re athletic enough, skilled enough to be able to be in position to help but also be able to close out and contest threes, and that’s expected of them,” Davis said. “And it’s expected of them because they’re talented enough and knowledgeable enough and smart enough to be able to do that.”

If all five on the court defended like Black, those defensive issues would be solved. As Carolina’s defensive stopper, Black’s goal is to make his man uncomfortable.

“Offense pretty much is about confidence and I feel like once you take somebody’s confidence, that’s pretty much half the battle,” Black said. “They’re not gonna want to do anything else. They’re gonna start second-guessing themselves and then you can start making them uncomfortable. It’s like a little mind game with myself and I just feel like I know how to make people uncomfortable.”

The Tar Heels will find out this week against Michigan on Wednesday night and at Georgia Tech in their ACC opener on Sunday how much progress they are making on defense.

UNC season statistics

DateScore, record/day, time, TVLocationOpponent
November (4–2)
583–55 exhibition winHomeElizabeth City State
983–67 win, 1–0HomeLoyola Maryland
1294–87 win, 2–0HomeBrown
1694–83 win, 3–0RoadCollege of Charleston
2093–84 loss, 3–1Uncasville, Conn.Y — No. 2 Purdue
2189–72 loss, 3-2Uncasville, Conn.Y — No. 13 Tennessee
2372–53 win, 4-2HomeUNC Asheville
December
1Wednesday, 9:20, ESPNHomeX — No. 24 Michigan
5Sunday, 3, ESPNRoadGeorgia Tech
11Saturday, 8, ACCNHomeElon
14Tuesday, 7, ESPN2HomeFurman
18Saturday, 3, CBSLas VegasZ — No. 5 UCLA
21Tuesday, 7, ACCNHomeAppalachian State
29Wednesday, 7, ESPN2HomeVirginia Tech
January
1Saturday, noon, ACCNRoadBoston College
5Wednesday, 9, ESPN2RoadNotre Dame
8Saturday, 1, ESPNHomeVirginia
15Saturday, 8, ACCNHomeGeorgia Tech
18Tuesday, TBA, ESPNRoadMiami
22Saturday, 8, ACCNRoadWake Forest
26Wednesday, RSNHomeBoston College
29Saturday, 2, ACCNHomeN.C. State
31Monday, 7, ESPNRoadLouisville
February
5Saturday, 6, ESPNHomeNo. 1 Duke
8Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2RoadClemson
12Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2HomeFlorida State
16Wednesday, 8, ACCNHomePittsburgh
19Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2RoadVirginia Tech
21Monday, 7, ESPNHomeLouisville
26Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2RoadN.C. State
28Monday, 7, ESPNHomeSyracuse
March
5Saturday, 6, ESPNRoadNo. 1 Duke
8–
12
ACC TournamentBrooklyn
RSN — regional sports networks; ACCN — ACC Network; X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge;
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic

ACC pool photo

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